This weekend, two Austin women sat to eat at a local diner near the University of Texas and instead got a mouthful of hate. A man shouted anti-Muslim hate speech at the two women, Leilah Abdennabi and Sirat Al-Nahi, telling them, among other things, to “go back to Saudi Arabia.” In a Facebook post that went viral, Al-Nahi described that she has “never felt more dehumanized and humiliated.”
Abdennabi added that it was not just the hate speech that was so hurtful. “No one else said or did anything, and that’s what makes these experiences 1000 (times) worse is the people just silently watching.”
As a Sikh man who wears a turban and is often perceived by fellow Americans as “the enemy,” I agree with Abdennabi when she says that moments of bigotry are far more painful when the people around me remain silent. To me, silence in such moments does not indicate neutrality. Rather, silence suggests an implicit acceptance, and therefore, a complicit approval.
When strangers stand with me in response to hate speech, I feel like people recognize the humanity within me. However, when people around me remain silent in such situations, I feel the same way that Al-Nahi did this weekend: dehumanized and humiliated. In these moments, I also have no choice but to assume that everyone feels the same way about me.
Not speaking against prejudice when we witness it sends the message that we do not feel strongly enough about our values to stand for them. Remaining silent sends the destructive message to perpetrators that we agree with their actions, while also telling those who are targeted that we believe they should be victimized.
American history is filled with examples of people we admire, such as Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, because they stuck to their values in the face of adversity. It is incumbent on us to recognize the contributions of our heroes and emulate their examples.
I was reminded of this over the weekend by Austinite Greg Worthington, who took a public stand against racism that targeted my younger brother, Darsh Preet Singh. My brother attended Trinity University in San Antonio and in 2004 was the first Sikh NCAA athlete to play basketball with a beard and turban.
A popular online comedian circulated a photo of my brother playing basketball, with a bigoted caption that stated: “Nobody at school wants to guard Muhammad, he’s too explosive.”
This meme not only wrongfully assumed Darsh to be a Muslim, but it also made a joke based on the harmful stereotype that links Muslims to terrorism.
A Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, Greg Worthington saw this racist meme and decided he could not remain silent. He wrote an impassioned post that explained why the joke was not funny and how it perpetuated negative assumptions that endanger people’s lives. Greg’s post quickly went viral — in less than 24 hours, it had already been shared nearly 10,000 times and received more than 20,000 likes.
Worthington’s example of standing for what is right lies in direct opposition to the silence that met Abdennabi and Al-Nahi this past weekend. His courage to speak against racism aligns with what we all aspire to do for one another, and it reminds us that, with a little bit of effort, we can all do better.
We all know that our nation has always been at its best when we stand together. We also know that it goes against our values to discriminate against people on the basis of how they look or what they believe. Now, in the context of increasingly divisive, hateful rhetoric, it is time for those of us who believe in equality and justice to make our voices heard.
Singh is an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University. He also serves as senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition and Truman fellow for the Truman National Security Project.